How Do You Solve a Problem Like Pope Francis?

As I write this post, Pope Francis is here in these United States, tooling around in a Fiat.  Commentators have offered a number of angles to explain his choice of vehicle, such as the Italian connection, its fuel efficient characteristics, its small size, etc.  All of those likely have something to do with it, but I think one dimension is that Pope Francis, in a gentle way, is trolling his critics.  "Oh yeah?  You don't like the fact that I don't fit into your preferred image of the Pope as the Great and Powerful Oz?  Well, here's some more of what you don't like, courtesy of a cute Italian compact car and my smiling face inside."

If Francis is trolling his critics, it appears to be working.  About six months ago, Ross Douthat predicted in the New York Times that Pope Francis's embrace of distributive justice-oriented positions and environmental concern would be taken in stride by the economic conservatives among the Catholic commentariat.  "[T]here’s nothing threatening to church unity about [Francis's thinking], and to the extent that 'movement conservatism' as a whole turns explicitly anti-papal over Francis’s economic pronouncements (and I don’t expect it will) so much the worse for the movement," Douthat wrote.  I was skeptical of Douthat's take on his own tribe, and to borrow from Tony Kornheiser, "I believe I had that."

The ways in which Pope Francis's internal critics have reacted have been on a spectrum, in keeping with their level of sophistication.  George Weigel, for example, is still holding firmly to the Through the Looking Glass position that everything in Catholic Social Teaching is totally advisory except insofar as it impacts "moral" questions (as defined . . . by George Weigel), at which point it snaps back to being unyieldingly binding.  This is well-trod ground for Weigel, who once encouraged readers to redline passages in one of Benedict's encyclicals that had social justice content they found unpalatable.  L'Eglise, c'est moi.  In defense of Weigel, this can be seen as paying homage to his predecessor at The National Review, William Buckley, who famously responded to Pope John XXIII's social justice encyclical Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher") with the line "Mater, si; Magistra, no."

Weigel's position simply lays bare what everyone suspected all along--as Jeet Heer said in that New Republic piece "almost all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics."  As I have said in the past, far be it for me to point the accusatory finger at a fellow diner at the cafeteria.  While one might hope for a smidgen more self-awareness and a tad less self-righteousness from our fellow patrons, I think it is more productive to focus on opposing their political program and let them work out their salvation on their own (and God's) time table.

Others have been, shall we say, less restrained.

Rod Dreher posted a truly enjoyable montage of the state of play in Conservative-land.

A couple of thoughts.  First, if your conservative positions are seen as ridiculous and overblown by Rod Dreher, you are in deep waters indeed.  Second, if that video does not convince you that free market capitalism, at least in its most baroque forms, is a religion with all of the same features as any other religion (sacred texts, the requirement of belief in things not proven, martyrs of various sorts, heretics, etc.), then I don't know what to tell you.  Third, it is amusing/scary to me that Barack Obama and Pope Francis are jointly responsible for the return of the Red Menace to our political discourse, after a twenty year absence.  Surely that will improve the civility of our common life--it sure did the last time!

Fourth, and perhaps this is the current rhetoric on immigration from the right that is coloring my thinking, I noticed a whiff of racism/anti Latino bias in these comments.  A core theme of the comments that because he is from Latin America, Pope Francis is too stupid to understand how good capitalism actually is, and that it is the White Man's Burden to explain to him why his people would be happy with their lot.  The notion that Glenn Beck is going to explain Economics 101 to a guy with a Jesuit education like he is some dim child is hilarious and sad.  As someone who knows a few Jesuits, and gave serious though to becoming a Jesuit, let me help Glenn out--he's read all the books and heard all the arguments that you would use to defend U.S.-style capitalism.  He understands them better than you do, despite his "handicap" of not being born in the U.S.  He just disagrees with them.

My second "favorite" anti-Francis screed came from George Will over the weekend.  Will does not even attempt to hide his contempt for the Pope, nor his disdain for everything in the Americas south of San Antonio.  He also deploys an interesting meme (one also picked up by noted Ebenezer Scrooge impersonator Thomas Sowell) that the Pope is wrong about critiquing poverty because the living conditions of the poor are better in some absolute sense than the poor of past eras.  "Sure, you live in squalid conditions while some small slice of your society lives in opulence, with no hope of ever bridging that gap.  But you are probably not going to get leprosy, so basically you should consider yourself fortunate."  If that's the best they have in response to Catholic social teachings on the economy, we are all in good shape.  But the funniest line of the whole piece, as pointed out by Elizabeth Bruenig on Twitter, is this one:

The saint who is Francis’s namesake supposedly lived in sweet harmony with nature. (emphasis mine).

If you had "St. Francis Trutherism" on your conservative talking point bingo card, then I tip my hat to your skill.  "Tune in next week, when George Will demands the Vatican release St. Peter's long form birth certificate to prove he was really a Galilean."  

To be fair, Will is not a Catholic.  But no such excuse applies to my "favorite" anti-Francis quote-maker, Father Robert Sirico the head of the libertarian think-tank the Acton Institute.   I will quote it in full:

And really, Sirico says, the Vatican shouldn’t be thinking about markets at all. Its job is to guide people’s spirits, not their purchases. “The church doesn’t profess to be an economic think tank,” Sirico says. “If that’s allowed to persist, it in effect dilutes the church’s brand.”

Is there anything more pathetic than an ordained priest worrying about the Church's "brand," like he was some lame mid-level marketing guru?  I mean, it seems to me that the Church did OK for 2000 years before the advent of people like Father Sirico to manage the Church's "brand."  Plus, if the Church is not an economic think-tank, how does Father Sirico, and official ordained representative of that Church, justify being the head of an economic think-tank?   Shouldn't he be "guiding people's spirits, not their purchases"?  Physician, heal thyself, indeed.

What is striking here is not the disagreement with Francis's program from the right, but the tone.  It is in marked contrast to the critique of Francis from the left, which all but uniformly takes the form of "Pope Francis is great and he seems like a genuine person, but I disagree with him about X, Y, and Z." (Bernie Sanders is an excellent, and persistent, example of this in action).  Sure, there have been some sharp elbows, particularly around gender issues (fairly, in my view), but nothing like the kind of doomsaying from the right.

In addition, I have noticed that a number of religious leaders and members of other denominations have made a point of talking about how Pope Francis is inspiring their own work in their own religious context.  In particular, I have seen a number of pieces from Rabbis who have written about how Pope Francis is becoming a model for them in their work.  Many of these folks are on the more progressive end of Judaism, though not all.  What is interesting to me about the perspective of the Rabbis is that they have no particular incentive to praise the Pope or carry water for any particular point of view inside Catholicism or Christianity that the Pope might represent.  If they were not genuinely inspired by the approach and tone of the Pope, they would have just said nothing.  Pope Francis seems to be legitimately striking a nerve in people who are completely detached from the internal politics of the Catholic Church.  Maybe the Rabbis see something that those among the Catholic Right cannot bring themselves to see.

The title of the post is, of course, an homage to The Sound of Music.  In the song "Maria," you see two basic approaches to the problem of Maria.  The first approach is to say, "she's not doing everything we want--get rid of her" (I hate to have to say it/But I very firmly feel/Maria's not an asset to the abbey).  But the other take is a kind of bemused confusion--"I don't know what she is doing, and it is a little disruptive, but her heart is basically in the right place and she is good for us." (She waltzes on her way to Mass/And whistles on the stair/And underneath her wimple/She has curlers in her hair/I even heard her singing in the abbey).

The second take, the one that refuses to overreact and is open to seeing where all of this will lead, is clearly the approach taken by the Mother Superior.  In fact, one gets the strong sense that Maria and the Mother Superior are kindred spirits, living life in the same basic way as manifest in their different circumstances.  Having been in a religious community, I can promise you that if this were a real convent, there would be a strong contingent of the sisters who would complain forcefully (but discretely) about the failure of the Mother Superior to "uphold the rules and values of the convent" visa ve Maria, and predict that all of this was a sign that the convent was going to hell in a handbasket.  A good Mother Superior would know that the proper thing to do with regard to these complaints is to ignore them and keep on with letting Maria be Maria.  Which is what Pope Francis seems to be doing with his critics on the Catholic Right.

Ultimately, the answer to the question "how do you solve a problem like Pope Francis?" is "you don't."  


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